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Academy Grad's Drone Film of Mongolia Soars at Festivals

Hired by the Mongol Ecology Center, Jeff Colhoun spent six weeks creating the spectacular film

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Academy of Art University School of Photography graduate Jeff Colhoun (M.F.A. ’12). Photo courtesy of Jeff Colhoun.

Few people get the chance to travel to Mongolia, a sparsely populated Asian country bordered by China and Russia. Even fewer get the opportunity to experience the rugged beauty of Darkhad Valley, one of the most remote places in Mongolia and the world. The difficult-to-access valley is home to the nomadic Dukha people and endangered species such as snow leopards and ibex (a type of mountain goat). 

Last year, Academy of Art University alumnus Jeff Colhoun was hired by the Mongol Ecology Center, a nonprofit government organization, to create the documentary Darkhad Valley. “I spent six weeks in Darkhad Valley shooting a film about the rangers there and the work they’re doing to protect endangered species,” said Colhoun, who graduated with an M.F.A. in photography in 2012.

Darkhad Valley includes breathtaking aerial footage of an ibex clambering up the side of a cliff; jagged mountain peaks; wild horses streaking across the valley floor; colorful locals; and pristine rivers and lakes. The documentary has been featured at several festivals, including the recent Madrid Drone Film Festival. Although Colhoun didn’t get to attend the event, he did go to the competitive Flying Robot International Film Festival where Darkhad Valley was one of three finalists for a Cinematic Narrative award. 

“That was a really cool event,” he said. “It was held at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, which is a great venue. There were a bunch of creators and people who work in the technical world of the drone industry. It was neat to have all of them in the same place.”

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An image from Jeff Colhoun’s trip to Mongolia. Photo by Jeff Colhoun.

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An image from Jeff Colhoun’s trip to Mongolia. Photo by Jeff Colhoun.

Colhoun fell for drone photography after seeing footage of the Alps captured by one while he was a student at the Academy. “I got very engaged in the technology and started getting work shooting with drones,” he said. “It’s become one of my main sources of income.”

Colhoun loves the freedom drones provide him as an aerial cinematographer. “Especially internationally, there are sometimes no rules or regulations about where drones can fly,” he remarked. “You can push the limits of cameras and technology to get a vantage point and shot you couldn’t normally get.” 

In Mongolia, for example, he was able to home in on an ibex scrambling up a mountainside from several miles away. “With a drone, I was allowed in this strictly protected area in a really remote place,” explained Colhoun. “I could capture things that would have required a helicopter otherwise. Using a helicopter is a lot riskier since it could crash. If I crash a drone, I’m out a few thousand dollars, but I’m alive.”

Colhoun leverages the photo editing skills he gained as an M.F.A. student at the Academy in his aerial cinematography and other work. Having strong post-processing abilities gives him an advantage in a field where many drone photographers have a good grasp of the technical and mechanical aspects of using flying robotic camera but lack the finesse to turn what they capture into a compelling final product.

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An image from Jeff Colhoun’s trip to Mongolia. Photo by Jeff Colhoun.

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An image from Jeff Colhoun’s trip to Mongolia. Photo by Jeff Colhoun.

“The capture is important, but really secondary to what you do with it after,” Colhoun said. “The Academy really focused on the post-processing side of photography.”

Colhoun’s freelance assignments include being a Brand Ambassador for PolarPro, a creator of outdoor filming gear. He does in-the-field product testing, endorsement and content creation for the company. He also does digital editing work for a variety of clients such as Gap. In addition, Colhoun recently released a book, “Darkhad Valley,” filled with stunning photos from his trip to Mongolia. You can purchase a copy on his website, www.jeffcolhoun.com, or through Amazon.

Colhoun is looking forward to returning to Mongolia soon. This time, he’ll be filming content to help boost tourism in the country. “Mongolia’s economy is really struggling,” he said. “It’s a beautiful spot, but most people don’t know much about it or think about visiting it.”